Football Friends Online – When 90 Mins Is Not EnoughThe art of utilising a footballer - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough The art of utilising a footballer - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough

The art of utilising a footballer

Watching VFB Stuttgart’s come-from-behind win over Eintracht Frankfurt last weekend was instructive for a number of reasons. First, and most glaring, was the fact that Stuttgart were able to bag all three points away at a vociferous Commerzbank-Arena while still reeling from two straight Bundesliga losses. Okay, to be fair, Frankfurt were not exactly on a fairy tale run themselves. So toothless have Armin Veh’s charges been that prior to this game, they had failed to find the back of the net in their past five matches. Essentially it can be said Stuttgart came up trumps in a contest between two teams short of confidence.

The second thing that caught my eye in this entertaining encounter was the deployment of Cote d’Ivoire’s veteran left back Arthur Boka as a midfielder. The modern game seems to have unwittingly given rise to the phenomenon of the ‘utility’ player and Sir Alex Ferguson seems to have been one of the pioneers of this form of tinkering. It was he who would plant Phil Neville at the right extreme of a four-man defence and, a few games later, unleash him on creative midfielders in the middle of the park to protect the back four. The Special One also used this tactic during his time in England, Michael Essien being his primary target. There is nary a position behind the forward line that the Ghanaian didn’t fill in during his time under Mourinho. Despite being just 1.77m, he was pitted against giant centre forwards in the sweeper role. More recently we’ve all marvelled at how snugly Barcelona’s Adriano fits into any role Tito Vilanova demands of him. The Brazilian has been shifted through virtually all the defensive positions as Carlos Puyol, Gerard Pique, Eric Abidal and Dani Alves were sidelined at various stages of the season. Even as this ersatz winger dispatched his defensive duties with zest, he still found time notch a few important goals for the Blaugrana.      

According to the match commentator, manager Bruno Labbadia pushed Boka infield to add more muscle to the midfield. But if the first half of the Sunday game was anything to by, this strategy backfired as Stuttgart struggled for possession and their rearguard found themselves exposed on several occasions. Stefan Aigner’s goal from captain Pirmin Schweigler’s sublime through pass gave a measure of how little protection Stuttgart’s defence were getting from Boka and William Kvist, the club’s designated stopper. Both players seemed to have gone AWOL before the break, with Boka in particular floating aimlessly between the halfway line and Frankfurt’s box. The Ivorian’s negligence of his defensive duties led to forwards Ibrahima Traore and Shinji Okazaki tracking back more than necessary, reducing their usefulness as attacking outlets. In the second half Boka returned to the field better informed of his role, being upended in the 48th minute to win the penalty that cancelled out Aigner’s strike and taking his place at the pump after Georg Niedermeier’s header put Stuttgart ahead.

But the question remains, if Stuttgart had come up against a team more prolific than one that hadn’t scored in the past six weeks, would Labbadia have been punished for his Boka experiment? Listening to the Stuttgart coach’s remarks regarding their dismal Europa Cup display in Rome against Lazio, you can sympathize with his desire to add some steel to the midfield. “…we need to be clearer in our defensive behaviour…” he moaned. Most of the times coaches shift players from their comfort zones, they face squads decimated by injuries or suspensions, or like in Stuttgart’s case, they want to strengthen a particularly vulnerability in the team.

Given that this is becoming more and more frequent in Europe’s top leagues, what does this mean for today’s footballer and the quality of the game? Are football academies adapting to accommodate this dimension of the modern game by churning out all-action youngsters capable of playing anywhere on the park? And does this mean there will be less ‘wizards’ on the field, their flair being sacrificed to produce more physically attuned, efficient, all round players? I recently read a blog which lamented the disappearance of creative genius in the Serie A, being replaced by faster, more athletic, but less inventive players. And save for Andrea Pirlo’s magical performances as a deep-lying creator for Juventus, you cannot help but agree with the author of the blog. It’s my sincere hope that the multiplication of all-action midfielders/defenders in club football doesn’t sound the death knell for the beauty in the beautiful game.  

Phil Kimonge